ERFOUD, like Er Rachidia, is largely a French-built administrative centre, and its desultory frontier-town atmosphere fulfils little of the promise of the Tafilalt. Arriving from Er Rachidia, however, you get a first, powerful sense of proximity to the desert dunes, with frequent sandblasts ripping through the streets, and total darkness in the event of a (not uncommon) electrical black-out. This desert position is best appreciated from the vantage point of the Borj Est, the hill fort 3Km across the river, from where you can get a glimpse of the sands to the south; the fort itself is still used by the military but you can drive up to the public car park, by petit taxi or rental car, and then walk the last 200 metres for the all-round views.

Views apart, for most travellers Erfoud functions very much as a staging post for the sand dunes near Merzouga, and/or the last oasis village of Rissani. Its only other point of interest, aside from its date festival, is the local marble industry, which produces a unique, high quality black marble which, like all marbles, is metamorphosed limestone, in this case containing fascinating fossils. When polished, it is attractive and is to be seen locally on every bar top and reception desk.

You can visit the marble works on the Tinerhir road; ask or look for the Usine de Marmar (Marble factory). A German sculptor, Fred Jansen, and his Arts Natura group, pioneered carving the marble so that the fossils are revealed in 3D and, at its best, this is most impressive. But the process has been developed locally without taste so that the contrived artifacts are pure kitsch. The better-class work can be seen in the showroom at the marble works or the more central H. fossile Export opposite the Hôtel.

TINERHIR is largely a base for the trip up into the Todra Gorge – but it  is also a much more interesting place than other administrative centres along this route. It is over-looked by a ruinous but ornamental Glaoui Kasbah, and just east of the modern town is an extensive palmery, which feels a world apart, with its groups of ksour built at intervals into the rocky hills above. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to catch the first lorry up to the Todra Gorge the Tinerhir and, to the northeast, the Todra palmeries -are major attractions in themselves.

The palmeries seem all the more special after the journey from Boumalne : a bleak drive across desolate plains, interrupted by the sudden oases of IMITER (with several fine Kasbahs) and TIMADRIOUINE. The Djebel Sarhro looms to the south for the latter part of the trip, dry barren outlines of mountains, like something from the Central Asia steppes; the drama of this part of the range was another big backdrop in David lean’s lawrence of Arabia.

South of Imiter, in the foothills of the Djebel Sahro, you will see from the Boumalne Tinerhir road the spoil and silver mines of the société Mêtallurgique d’Imiter (SMI). Outside interest is not encouraged and rumours abound locally about other mining enterprises, possibly including gold mining; as you enter Tinerhir, you pass alongside the SMI company houses, signposted Cité de personnel.

 The Tinerhir and Todra palmeries

There are Palmeries to the southeast and northeast of Tinerhir, lining both sides of the Todra River. For an overview, the Hôtel Saghro has the town’s best viewing point. To explore, you’re best off renting a bike from Roger Mimo at the Hôtel Tomboctou, and discussing a route with him; our map was based upon his sketches. Alternatively, you could hire a mule – and arrange a guide -in one of the oasis villages.

The palmeries follow the usual pattern in these valleys : date palms at the edge, terraces of olive, pomegranate, almond and fruit trees further in, with grain and vegetable crops planted beneath them. The ksour (family compounds) each originally controlled one section of the oasis, and there were frequent disputes over territory and, above all, over access to the mountain streams for each ksour’s network of water channels. Even in this century, their fortifications were built in earnest, and, as Walter Harris wrote (melodramatically, but probably with little exaggeration): ” The whole life was one of warfare and gloom. Every tribe had its enemies, every family had its blood feuds, and every man his would-be murderer.”

Our map indicates several good viewing points, or miradors; don’t miss the length of road between Taorirt and Ichmarirne – which is breathtaking in the hour before sunset. The map also names the most picturesque villages – many of which have ksour and Kasbahs with extraordinarily complex patterns incised on the walls. Some include former Jewish quarters – mellahs -though today the populations are almost entirely Berber and Muslim, mainly from the AÏt Todra tribe north of Tinerhir and the AÏt Atta tribe to the south.

Southeast of Tinerhir there are potteries at El Harat, while at nearby Tagia are the tombs of the AÏt Atta’s chiefs, Hassou Ba Salam, and his son, Ali Ba Salam. there’sa marabout near El Harat which is the focus of a June / July moussem; this area was originally settled by black slaves who were known as Haratin. For more on the Todra palmery and the approach to the gorge  see below.

The Todra Gorge

Whatever else you do in the south, spend at least a night in the Todra Gorge. You don’t need your own transport, nor any great expeditionary zeal to get up there, and yet it seems remote from the routes through the main valleys still and splendid in the fading evening light when the day visitors have gone.

The deepest, narrowest and most spectacular part of the gorge is only 15Km from Tinerhir, and there are three hotels where you can get a meal and stay the night. These can be reached by grand taxi or minibus from Tinerhir; they leave frequently and charge 6/8dh a place. Returning to Tinerhir, you stand a better chance of a taxi if you walk back to the Zaouîa Sidi Abdelâli, 3Km before the gorge, or hitch a lift with day visitors or other tourists.

Beyond the cluster of hotels, the road turns into a piste, providing an adventurous route right over the Atlas via the village of Imilchil (famed for its wedding market), as well as a possible loop over to the Dadés gorge. You can arrange transport along the Imilchil route, either by chartering it at Tinerhir, or by paying for a place on a series of Berber lorries, which shuttle across for village souks.If you plan to drive the route, you will need a suitable 4×4 vehicle.

Tinerhir to the gorge

En route to the gorge proper, the road climbs along the Todra palmery, a last, fertile shaft of land, narrowing at points to a ribbon of palms between the cliffs. There are more or less continuous villages, all of them the pink-grey colour of the local rock, and the ruins of Kasbahs and ksour up above or on the other side.

Around 9Km from Tinerhir, you cross a tributary of the Todra, and come to three campsites, flanking a particularly luxuriant stretch of the palmery. The first of these, camping Atlas, is the largest and best equipped, with a shop, restaurant and, across the road, the Auberge with simple rooms to rent. Next along are the well-shaded Camping de la source des poissons Sacrés, again also with rooms. The latter is set beside a pool known as la Source des poissons Sacrés, where women come to bathe (on three successive Fridays) as a cure for sterility.

Anywhere else, a stay in one of these campsites world bea major recommendation. But if time is at all limited, you might as well continue to the beginning of the gorge. If you’re on local transport, and it’s not too hot, you could get yourself set down here, have a snack and walk the final 6Km. The valley narrows to a thin strip of green on this final approach, until finally the surfaced road gives out and you arrive at a mini-gorge, leading into an amphitheatre of cliffs, prefacing the gorge proper – a wonderful sight, with canyon walls rising 300m on both sides.

 

 

BOUMALNE DU DADES is a more interesting stop than El Kelâa. It is again well poised for exploration of the Djebel Sarhro and for the bird-rich Vallée des Oiseaux (guides can be arranged for both through the hotels), and is the gateway to the Dadès Gorge. In addition, it has some charm of its own, with the old town on the eastern bank of the Dadès climbing up the slope to the plateau where a military barracks and trio of hotels command the valley and the entry to the gorge.

The Dadès Gorge

The Dadès Gorge, with its high cliffs of limestone and weirdly shaped erosions, begins almost immediately north of Boumalne. you follow the 6901 road, signposted “Mserhir” (Msemrir). Most travellers cover the first 25 Km or so by car or taxi, then turn back, which makes for a fine day’s trip. If you have a 4X4, however, you could loop over to the Todra Gorge or continue up and across the High Atlas to the Beni Mellal – Marrakesh road. Alternatively, a couple of day’s walking along the gorge from Boumalne will reward you with superb scenery, and plenty of Kasbahs and pisé architecture to admire; there are rooms in several of the villages en route to Msemrir.
The gorge is accessible by local transport from Boumalne, with Peugeot taxis, transit vans and Berber pick-ups (camionettes) and lorries (camions) leaving regularly from the market square for Aît Ali (25km) and less often to Msemrir (63Km). Pick-ups run occasionally to Atlas villages beyond but they do so more often on the Todra gorge route, which would make an easier access point if you plan to cross the Atlas on local transport. Returning to Boumalne, a transit/minibus leaves Msemrir daily .

Into the gorge: Boumalne to Msemir
For the first 15-20Km, the Dadés Gorge is pretty wide and the valley carved out of it is green and well populated. There are ksour and Kasbahs clustered all along this stretch, many of them flanked by more modern houses, though even these usually retain some feature of the decorative traditional architecture.

Boumalne to Aît Oudinar
About three kilometres along the road into the gorge from Boumalne, you pass an old Glaoui Kasbah, strategically sited as always to control all passage. Four kilo-metres further in, where the road begins to turn into a hairpin corniche, there is a superb group of ksour at AîT ARBI, built against a fabulous volcanic twist of the colour of the earth and fabulously varied, ranging from bleak lime-white to dark reds and greenish blacks.
Four kilometres on from here is a region known as Tamnalt, which is also known by the locals as the “Hills of Human Bodies” after its strange formations which, in fact, look mostly like feet. Geologically the rock is a weathered conglomerate of pebbles which probably lay where a great river entered a primordial sea.

Hereabouts, you climb over a little pass. The views make this a fine place to stop
to lunch (as tour groups do) and it also has seven basic rooms for rent. Nearby there is a hidden side-valley, entered by a narrow gorge : the owners of the Meguirne take a proprietary interest in this patch of nature and will try to involve you in le camping sauvage. A kilometre north of the Meguirne there are further roms -clean and quite reasonable – at the Hôtel, which again caters for tour groups by day, laying on “Berber Weddings” in its courtyard.

On from here, the valley floor is less fertile and the hills gentler. The road continues through the hamlet of AÏT ALI (25Km from Boumalne) to a spot known as AÏT Oudinar; where a bridge spans the river, and the gorge narrows quite dramatically.There is a little hotel, the Auberge des Gorges du Dadés, by the bridge, an attractive place to stay, offering a choice between cheap, basic rooms or pricier ones with en-suite hot showers; bivouac tents on the terrace, or camping alongside the river where the few poplar trees provide some shade. The auberge serves meals, and arranges mule and 4X4 trips into the gorge and Atlas. It has a tie-up with the Hôtel de Foucauld in Marrakesh.

Travelling through the Dadès in spring, you’ll find Skoura’s fields divided by the bloom of  thousands of small, pink Persian roses – cultivated as hedgerows dividing the plots. At El KELÄA DES MGOUNA  (also spelt QALAT MGOUNA), 50 Km east across another shaft of semi-desert plateau, there are still more, along with an immense Kasbah-style rose-water factory with two prominent chimneys. Here, the Capp et Florale company distil the eau de rose. In late May (sometimes early June), a rose festival is held in the village to celebrate the new year’s crops: a good time to visit, with villagers coming down from the mountains for the market, music and dancing.

The rest of the year, El Kelâa single, rambling street is less impressive. There’s a Wednesday souk, worth breaking your journey for, but little else of interest beyond the locked and deserted ruins of a Glaoui Kasbah, on a spur above the river. The local shops are always full of eau de rose, though, and the factory can be visited, too, for a look at – and an overpowering smell of – the distillation process. A second factory, Aromag, alongside the mobil petrol station, 13 Km out along the Tinerhir road, can also be visited; it is run by a French company, based – of course – at Grasse.

One of a hundred varieties, Rosa Centifolio have, as the name implies, hundreds of small leaves on each small bush. Folklore has it that they were brought from Persepolis by the Phoenicians. Aerial Photographs testify to there being 4200Km of low hedges; each metre yields up to one kilo of petals and it takes ten tons of petals to produce two to three litres of rose-oil. The petals are picked by women who start very early in the morning before the heat dries the bloom.

Vallée des Roses

If you have transport, this “secret valley” of the asif M’Goun, north of El Kelâa, would make a good one-day Excursion, or a detour en route to Boumalne. The valley begins due north of the town and is trailed by the minor road 6903 to TOURBIST and BOUTHARAR, where the 6904 leads south back to EL GOUMT ; both should be practicable with a Renault 4L. In spring, the route is lined by thousands of roses, and there is a notable Kasbah at Bou Tharar.

The Skoura oasis comprises a thin line of irrigated, fertile palmery, with dry rocky slopes to either side. Animals are not permitted to graze in the precious, cultivated area and so are kept just on the dry side of the line; to feed them, women constantly struggle up from the valley with huge loads of greenery – a characteristic sight here and throughout the southern valleys.

Southwest of Skoura 

The best point to stop and explore the skoura oasis is 2.5Km before you arrive at the village proper, coming from ouarzazate. Here, by the roadside, is a ruinous Kasbah, with a more recent single-storey building alongside; tour buses are sometimes parked beside it. This is the Kasbah de Ben Moro, which dates from the seventeenth century, and is said to have been built by a Spanish sheikh expelled from Andalucia. It nowadays belongs to the family of Mohammed Sabir, which lived in the old Kasbah until 1970 and now inhabit the house beside it; they use the old part for storage and and animals. Mohammed, if at home, will show visitors round, pointing out the living quarters on the first floor, the mill, and kitchens, and he will also guide you through the palmery, along a maze of paths and irrigation channels.

The palmery hereabouts is one of the lushest in Morocco, full of almond, olive and fig trees, vines and date palms, with alfalfa grass planted below for animal feed.


 

SKOURA village, which lies modestly off the main road, at the east end of the oasis, consists of little more than a souk and a small group of administrative buildings, where buses stop. You’ll probably want the services of a guide to explore some of the Kasbahs, and possibly visit one or two that are still inhabited.

 

The skoura oasis begins quite suddenly, around 30 Km east of Ouarzazate, along a tributary of the Drâa, the Oued Amerhidl. It is an extraordinary sight even from the road, which for the most part follows along its edge – a very extensive, very dense palmery, with an incredibly confusing network of tracks winding across fords and and through the trees to scattered groups of ksour and Kasbahs.

The Dadès, rambling east from Ouarzazate, is the harshest and most desolate of the southern valleys. Along much of its length, the river is barely visible above ground, and the road and plain are hemmed in between the parallel ranges of the High Atlas and Djebel Sarhro – broken, black-red volcanic rock and limestone pinnacles. This makes the oases, when they appear, all the more astonishing, and there are two here -Skoura and Tinerhir -among the most beautiful in the country. Each lies along the main bus route from Ouarzazate to Er Rachidia and to Erfoud, offering an easy and excellent opportunity for a close look at a working oasis and, in Skoura, a startling range of Kasbahs.

Impressive though these are, however, it is the two gorges that cut out from the valley into the High Atlas that steal the show. The Dadès itself forms the first gorge, carving up a fertile strip of land behind Boumalne du Dadès. To its east is the Todra Gorge, a classic, narrowing shaft of high rock walls, which you can trail by car or transit lorry from Tinerhir right into the heart of the Atlas. If you’re happy with the isolation and incertainties of the pistes beyond, it is possible, too, to continue across the mountains – a wonderful trip which emerges in the Middle Atlas, near Beni Mellal on the road from marrakesh to Fes.

To the south of the Dadès, the Djebel Sarhro also affers exciting options from october To April, either trekking on foot, or exploring its network of rough piste roads in a 4X4 vehicle. Tours and treks can be arranged through British trekking companies (see Basics) or in the “trailhead towns” of El Kelâa des Mgouna, Boumalne du Dadès and Tinerhir.